Hackers plant Shatner virus on orbiting satellite

April 01, 2009 Sophos Press Release

"We published this story on 1 April 2009. Of course, the Shatner virus doesn't really exist, and Far Polo L1 is an anagram of Apr1l Fool. We hope you enjoy the joke (and the video!) as much as we enjoyed putting it together."

IT security and control firm Sophos has discovered that hackers have successfully infected an orbiting communications satellite with a virus, and are interfering with television broadcasts.

The Far Polo L1 geo-stationary satellite, placed in orbit to broadcast TV programs to a global audience, appears to have been infected by a virus known as W32/Shatner. Under the control of sci-fi obsessed hackers, the Shatner virus is embedding subliminal images related to Star Trek into popular television programs such as "The Simpsons", "Friends" and "Doogie Howser MD" as they are beamed down to viewers on Earth.


Hackers infect satellite with Shatner virus from SophosLabs on Vimeo.

(The video can also be watched on YouTube)

Subliminal images placed into the TV programs include images of legendary Star Trek villains the Klingons and actor William Shatner, with the message: "This is W32/Shatner. All your TV are belong to us".

At the moment these messages seem to be taking the form of digital graffiti, tagging popular shows with their messages as they prove their abilities to interfere with TV broadcasting. Viewers should not be fooled however - unless proper steps are taken to protect broadcasts from this sort of tampering, subliminal messaging could be used to advertise sex-enhancement drugs, spew out religious or political propaganda, or worse, use advanced subliminal techniques to hypnotise viewers.

Shatner virus collage

"This isn't the first time that we have seen a virus in outer space, as there were reports of infected laptops on the International Space Station last year, but this is the first time that a communications satellite has been under the control of an unauthorised third party to send messages to viewers below," said Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant for Sophos. "What the hackers are trying to communicate remains uncertain, but evidence suggests that the Klingon images might be an attempt to persuade the masses to watch Star Trek episodes that feature Shatner as the captain."

"As gateway software has been getting better and better at stopping spam from reaching users' inboxes, the criminals have been looking for another way to get their unwanted messages in front of people," explained Cluley. "At the moment the hackers can only embed images for a split second, but if they manage to take complete control over TV broadcasts they could begin to advertise to hundreds of millions of people worldwide. SophosLabs are currently working around the clock to address this problem. In the interim, anyone wanting to watch popular reruns are advised to wrap their heads in a double layer of aluminium foil to prevent the subliminal messages from affecting them."

Sophos experts are monitoring the virus outbreak, and are asking TV viewers who believe they have seen affected TV shows to send their evidence to shatner-response@sophos.com